’Blues for Willadean’ Fundraiser Highlights LGBT Domestic Violence
Award-winning playwright Del Shores returned to Atlanta last weekend to headline a benefit screening of his latest film, "Blues for Willadean" at the Buckhead Theatre. The event raised funds and awareness around the work of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, highlighting the problem of LGBT domestic violence.
"The movie was very important to all of us because of the subject matter," Shores said. "It’s a sad story ultimately but there is light out of the darkness." So, it was only fitting that the proceeds from the screening go to the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence (GCADV).
Shores spoke with EDGE last week about his return to one of his favorite cities to showcase his emotional movie about domestic violence adapted from his 2003 play, "Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife."
The play received rave reviews, Shores recalled, including the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, NAACP Theatre Awards, LA Stage Alliance Ovation Award, Backstage West Garland Award and the LA Weekly Awards.
Jan Christiansen, executive director of the GCADV, was overcome with emotions after watching the movie. "I thought it was moving, amazing and thought provoking," she said. "It was so right on. My heart is almost coming out of my chest. It was just so moving."
The GCADV brings together member agencies, allied organizations and supportive individuals who are committed to ending domestic violence. According to the GCADV overview, "Domestic violence is one of the most pressing public health issues of our time." The group’s statistics ranks Georgia 10th in the country for its rate of men killing women. And their 2012 Annual Report states that more than 50 percent of survivors stay with their abusive partners because they do not feel that they can support themselves and their children.
"Blues for Willadean" took viewers into the darkened midst of domestic abuse by telling the story of Willadean Winkler, played by Beth Grant. The movie explores the hidden emotions, shame and secrecy of battered women, while also offering hope, healing and truth. The wife of a truck driver, J.D., played by David Steen, Willadean attempts to leave the abuse with the help of her only friend, LaSonia Robinson, played by Octavia Spencer (who was not present at the screening).
Grant, Steen and Dale Dickey (who plays Rayleen Hobs) attended the premier. Also in attendance were producers Emerson Collins, Robert L. Rearden, Jr., Robert L. Rearden III and executive producer Louise Beard.
The event raised funds for the continued work of the GCADV that does a lot of advocacy and lobbying work. During a question and answer segment, Christiansen spoke to the audience about the GCADV, saying, "We are a staff of seven. We are small but mighty. The movie just brought it home for us -- many of us who do this work are survivors (of domestic abuse)."
A true storyteller known for writing comedies with important subject matter that sometimes have gay characters, Shores said the goal of the movie was to shed more light on a shameful subject.
"When you’re battered like Willadean you think you’re alone, but you see others, and you see you’re not alone," Shores told EDGE. "The quest to get out is a really important message in this film."
The story of Willadean came to Shores years ago, after his ex-boyfriend’s sister was a battered woman who was the victim of horrific abuse. The abuse ultimately came to an end after her husband kidnapped her, and was later shot down by the SWAT team. Years later, after hearing her speak about her abuse, Shores said the story of Willadean came to him.
"She needed her story told," he said of the character of Willadean, who represents all of the women who are victims of domestic violence.
First, the story of Willadean came alive on stage with the five actors who portray the characters in the film. "They created these characters with me on stage and it was important to me to maintain the integrity of that original live production by using all of them to bring the characters to life again in the film," Shores said.
When they began filming the movie in Atlanta, Shores said he told the actors to "scratch deep, scratch beneath the surface."
Grant said she had a hard time becoming Willadean, telling the audience that she fought Shores on taking on the role of the downtrodden main character.
"I said no man would ever hurt me," said Grant initially. She visited halfway houses and shelters and met women who had been abused, to inhabit the role.
Portraying Willadean for six months on stage in Los Angeles was hard, Grant recalled of the range of emotions she and the other cast members experienced. But after a while, Grant said she was finally able to connect with the character of Willadean. Because of the connections she made with her character on stage, Grant told EDGE that it was a little easier to bring her character to life again on film. But she admitted that watching the melodrama was uncomfortable for her.
Grant said that she would like to take the film to all 50 states and hold a screening as way to bring awareness to domestic violence.
This domestic violence extends beyond just abuse between men and women. Data released in January by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the domestic violence is also a big problem in the LGBT community, although it is usually not taken seriously by the media or mainstream advocacy groups.
"We know that violence affects everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. This report suggests that lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in this country suffer a heavy toll of sexual violence and stalking committed by an intimate partner," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden in a press release about the report. "While intervening and providing services are important, prevention is equally critical."
The report marks the first time the CDC has released national data about intimate partner violence, sexual violence and stalking broken down by sexual orientation.
Jennifer Thomas, statewide taskforce coordinator at Georgia Commission on Family Violence, was also in attendance at the screening, and said, "It’s a pretty accurate portrayal. It was hard to watch the violence."
Thomas works with women who are currently serving time in prison for killing their abusers. She would like to see the women who have had to kill their abusers to get freedom, to be seen as victims and not as perpetrators of a crime.
"Most often the victims are failed by the system that should have helped them," Thomas noted.
Shores was hopeful that his film -- one of the darkest projects he has written -- would help victims to seek help and to leave their abusers. He was hopeful that more people like LaSonia would step up and get involved.
"Even though it’s uncomfortable, we have to step up," Shores urged.
Shores, who is openly gay, has written, directed and produced independent films, network and cable television, regional and national touring theater. He is most known for his play, "Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got the Will?)," "Sordid Lives" and his work on "Queer as Folk." He said that although the film was uncomfortable, he hoped it would continue empower people to enact change.
"It’s an audience pleaser," Shores said of his film. "They love these women and love the journey."
"Blues for Willadean" is available on I-Tunes and on DVD.